French President Francois Hollande on Monday called on Israel to cease all settlement construction, praising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for halting the Housing Ministry’s recently announced plans for further apartments in the West Bank.
Speaking at a press conference in Ramallah alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hollande urged both sides to continue to make goodwill gestures to enable an atmosphere conducive to peace. He suggested that the Palestinians give up or at least soften their insistence on the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians, mostly descendants of refugees, to sovereign Israel.
“For a peace agreement to be reached, France demands the total and definite halt of settlement construction because it compromises a two-state solution,” the French president said. “I said that to the Israeli authorities in friendship. I say here to the Palestinians that they, too, need to make efforts to deal with difficult and complicated problems, notably the refugees.”
For peace to be achieved, “realistic propositions” will have to be made, the French president said, referring to the Palestinian demand for a so-called right of return for some five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants. “If not, then there won’t be an agreement.”
Abbas said that, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, a “just and agreed-to” solution to the refugee problem would have to be found. “Let’s sit down around the [negotiating] table and let’s discuss a just solution and see if we can perhaps agree on it, and sign this peace agreement,” the PA chief said.
Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, most of Hollande’s comments to the press were about efforts to achieve a deal with Iran over its rogue nuclear program. He traveled to Ramallah on Monday for a meeting with Abbas in the Muqata’a, the third meeting between the two leaders since Hollande took office in May 2012. Hollande also laid a wreath at the grave of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Hollande said he was hopeful because Palestinians and Israelis had agreed to negotiate a final-status agreement. Both sides took painful steps to enable this round of talks to commence, “but more gestures are needed if one wants to arrive at an agreement,” he said.
“France is an exceptional position, because it is a friend of the Israelis and it is a friend of the Palestinians who want peace,” he said. “One has to make gestures, always gestures, because it’s going to be the last gesture that counts, that will enable peace.”
The French president mentioned that Netanyahu last week withdrew plans for new West Bank settlement construction, and said that he considered the prime minister’s move to be a gesture that allowed the Palestinian negotiators to continue with the talks.
Last Tuesday, Israel’s Housing Ministry published tenders for the planning of some 20,000 settlement units — an unprecedented number. Netanyahu hastily ordered the project to be rolled back, saying it constituted “an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran.”
On Sunday, Abbas said peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians would run their full course, “regardless of what happens on the ground.”
“We are committed and we will go to the full nine months, and then we will take the appropriate decision, Abbas told the AFP news agency. “We have committed to continue the negotiations for nine months, regardless of what happens on the ground,” he added without elaborating.
Under heavy US pressure and following intense shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks in July after a three-year hiatus, agreeing to a nine-month timeline set to expire in March 2014. For the duration of the talks, the Palestinians agreed to suspend their efforts for international recognition and to not pursue Israel in the international legal arena. Israel committed to freeing 104 Palestinian prisoners who committed their crimes before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The second phase of that program of releases was completed late last month.
The negotiations have hit some hurdles so far, including an uptick in terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinians, with the latest incident occurring just last week when a 16-year-old Palestinian youth stabbed an 18-year-old IDF soldier to death while the latter was sleeping on a bus. Israel has also made continued announcements of planned construction in the settlements, prompting frequent threats by Palestinian negotiators to quit the talks.
A Palestinian Authority official on Monday told Israel Radio that talks with Israel could resume as early as this week.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.